Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, aka RBG, the most-celebrated women jurist in the modern world, said in her 1993 testimony to be the associate justice of the Supreme Court of United States of America: “I became a lawyer in days when women were not wanted by most members of the legal profession. When I graduated from the Columbia Law School, not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me.”
It was 1959, it was New York, and it was the United States of America. A brilliant women lawyer, who had graduated with excellent academic records, was not employed by any legal firms just because she was a woman.
Switch to Kerala, and the year is 1957.
KR Gouri, a barrister, was a minister in the Kerala government, the first democratically elected government led by a Communist movement anywhere in the world, barring San Marino. Gouri was the minister who presented the very first bill in the assembly. The red-letter day was April 30, 1957. The bill was called ‘Stay of Eviction Procedure’ and it was to protect the lives of homeless and landless poor of the state.
So when RBG was struggling to get a job at legal firms in the most modern city of the world, Gouri, as a minister, was handling the most important portfolio in faraway Kerala.
Gouri Amma, the most adored and resilient woman leader of Kerala, was born on July 14, 1919, in Pattanakkad Village, Cherthala Taluk, Alappuzha. The district was part of the princely state of Travancore under the then British Raj. She was the seventh daughter of Kalathiparambil Raman Arumuriparambil and Parvathi Amma. One of the beneficiaries of the Renaissance Movement in South India during the late 19th and early 20th century, the family believed in education, social equality and reformation. Social, spiritual and economic lives in the region had been momentously influenced by Sree Narayana Guru, the great philosopher of Kerala. Raman and Parvathi, who were disciples of Guru, named their daughter Gauri as it was the name of the first graduate girl from Ezhava — a backward caste community in the Travancore region.
Racism, untouchability, caste hierarchy and discrimination were still in practice. Girls’ education was not yet a common. But the young and dynamic Gouri was never afraid of hurdles. Having completed her college education from Ernakulam Maharaja’s College and St Teresa’s College, she took law degree from Government Law College and became the first woman lawyer from the Ezhava community.
It was the rebellious 30s and 40s, and India was (politically) burning. Campuses were vibrant and effervescent. Students, farmers and labourers were fighting for their rights as well as for the country’s independence. The fight against caste discrimination, feudal system, dynasty rules and ultimately British imperialism was lingering at the same time. Naturally, Gouri took the plunge. As an intermediate student of Maharaja’s College, Gouri was part of the student rally led by the legendary Communist leader AK Gopalan, known as AKG.
Although Gouri started practising law at Cherthala munsiff court, politics remained part of her life. It was the time the agitation against Diwan CP Ramaswami Ayyar turned into massive protests and rallies. Eminent Communist leader P Krishna Pillai was leading the protest. Trade unionist TV Thomas and Gouri’s brother Sukumaran were local party leaders. When Diwan’s police started using brutal force, Pillai, Thomas and Sukumaran were forced to go into hiding. It was then that Gouri stormed into action and started organising people. A great communicator, she had the crowd at her feet. Gradually, she emerged as a leader of the Communist movement in Alappuzha. Gouri was arrested and tortured by police on multiple occasions. Later, she (famously) recalled: “If police lathis had the power to impregnate, she would have conceived several times.”
In 1951, Gouri was elected to the Travancore Assembly from Cherthala with an overwhelming majority and in 1954 to Thiru-Kochi Assembly. On November 1, 1956, under the States Reorganisation Act, Kerala was formed by the merger of Travancore-Cochin state with the Malabar district of Madras State. In 1957, the first legislative assembly election in Kerala was held. Gouri was elected to the first assembly from Cherthala. The Communist Party formed the first ministry in Kerala under the leadership of EMS Namboodiripad. Gouri was the sole woman in the cabinet, but she was given the most important portfolio — Revenue.
Kerala was a society with multi-layered discrimination, inequality and hierarchy. Even for the Communist government, ruling under a Constitution that accentuates socialism, it was very tough to deal with the disparity in society. Gouri introduced legislations that could end the misery of many under the feudal system. The Communist government wanted to distribute land to the landless and put a ceiling on the amount of land a family could own. Gouri converted the revolutionary idea of land reforms into a Bill and presented it in the assembly. The Bill, passed much later, was an historic moment in Kerala’s history.
Gouri married Thomas, fellow comrade and colleague (industries minister) in the ministry. She recalls in her autobiography: “I first met TV [TV Thomas was popularly known as TV among comrades] at the Travancore committee meeting held at my house. This was after TV and other leaders were acquitted in the Punnapra-Valayar case as there was no evidence against them. But there were rumours that TV and I were in love even before the Punnapra-Valayar agitation. Prior to this, I had met him only once at the Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, but not as TV but as the brother of my friend, Thresyamma.”
In 1960, Gouri was elected to the assembly again. Even from the Opposition bench, she was highly effective and vocal. Going through the digital archives of the assembly, one can see Gouri Amma’s practical but political interventions on every single occasion where there was an issue regarding women, labourers or the marginalised.
In 1964, when the Communist Party split, Gouri and Thomas ended up in different factions. Gouri was an important leader of the newly formed CPI(M), but Thomas chose to be with the original group. Since her student days at Maharaja’s College, Gouri’s personal and political lives remained the same. So her romantic-marriage life, too, had the same fate. But they tried to save their crumbling marriage, with Gouri taking a sabbatical from the party and shifting base to Alappuzha.
Gouri and Thomas became ministers again in the same Cabinet representing two parties after the 1967 election. Gouri (revenue portfolio) became No 2 in the EMS ministry while Thomas was in charge of industry. But the ideological and personal rift between the leaders was beyond repair.
Thomas died in 1977 after a long battle with cancer. In the same year, Gouri lost the assembly elections. She contested every legislative assembly election from 1951 to 2011. In 2006 and 2011, she lost and never contested again.
In 1980, K.R. Gouri was again No 2 in the E K Nayanar Cabinet with Agriculture and Social Welfare portfolio. In the 1987 elections, one of the main slogans of the Left Democratic Front was ‘Let the land of coconut be ruled by K R Gouri’ (Keram Thingum Kerala Naadine KR Gouri Nayicheedum, rhyming her name with that of the land of coconut). But again K R Gouri was not chosen as chief minister.
As the most prominent woman public figure, especially one that dared to disturb the patriarchal regime, she had to confront misogyny even in the party all through her life. Some of the leaders in her own party were always annoyed by her fiercely independent stands and soaring popularity. Gouri Amma started to move away from the party leadership from the late 80s and early 90s. She was demoted from the party central committee to Alappuzha district committee. In 1994, K R Gouri was expelled from the CPI(M) “for anti-party activities”.
In her typical style, she floated a political outfit called Janathipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) and became part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). From 2001 to 2006, K R Gouri was Agricultural Minister in the Congress ministry. After 2011, she distanced herself from the UDF and restored personal connections with old comrades. Gouri Amma never hid her political and personal disagreements with EMS Namboothiripad in her interviews or personal interactions, but her attitude towards VS Achuthanandan and Pinaryi Vijayan was always warm and cordial.
One of the major legislations Gouri Amma presented in the Kerala Assembly was the Women Commission Bill, 1990. On December 20, 1990 she introduced the bill in the Assembly as the social welfare minister. She said: ‘Most legislations of our land talk about the equality that women folk deserve and the powers to the women which the Constitution contemplated, but nothing happens in practice. We know the plight of women is unbearable and worsens day by day. We need to end this and change society. The bill is to make that change happen.”
She always used the Assembly and legislations for making real changes in society. In 1957, for instance, she sat on an agitation inside the Assembly. The Speaker and all-male ‘watch and ward’ security force were clueless about how to handle her. Her agitation spurred the system to introduce an all-new female watch and ward team in the Assembly. In 1999, when the Assembly passed the Kerala Restriction on Transfer by Restoration lands to Scheduled Tribes Bill (an attempt to pare down a 1975 law that would have returned lost forest lands to Adivasis), Gouri Amma was the lone voice of dissent.
She was probably the best Chief Minister and the party secretary Kerala and CPI(M) never had.
(K.R. Gouri Amma died at a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram early on Tuesday. She was 102).
(Sreejith Divakaran is a senior journalist based in Kerala).